If you could travel freely in Iraq, you would be able to visit a place called Camp Ashraf. But the road north that would take you there is still too dangerous to travel – not because of roadside bombs or terrorist attacks, but because the Iraqi government doesn’t want you to go there.
Iraqi journalists say that trying to go to Ashraf is a death sentence – “do not expect to come back,” they say.
The reason is simple: Camp Ashraf is the target of those in Iraq's government who are most friendly with the regime in Iran, and Iran wants the camp and its inhabitants shut down forever.
To outsiders it is the strangest thing: some 3,500 Iranians living in Iraq. But they’ve been there for more than two decades, supplying information to Iran’s enemies in their efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime.
When Ashraf was under U.S. military control, Iran couldn’t touch it. But since the Iraqis took over in January, they’ve been systematically pressuring the Iraqi government to take action. Now it’s been cordoned off for the past 20 days by Iraqi forces, gradually cutting them off from the outside world.
Why should the U.S. care?
Ashraf is home to Iranian opposition members from the PMOI – or People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. These people are the reason Iran’s nuclear program was exposed – it was their intelligence that brought it to the world's attention.
But in Iran’s eyes, they are a terrorist organization. The current Iraqi government agrees and the group is still on the U.S. blacklist, although it has been taken off the list of terrorist organizations by the EU.
Tehran wants their camp shut down, wanted members arrested and handed over for trial - and their organization destroyed.
But the U.S. has an obligation to the people of Ashraf. In July 2004, the United States Government recognized PMOI members as Protected Persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention, meaning that they should not be deported, expelled or repatriated, or displaced inside Iraq.
Now, as U.S. influence wanes in Iraq, Iran’s influence continues to strengthen and grow. Through Iran’s allies in the Iraqi government, a noose has been applied around Camp Ashraf and the people living there, and is slowly tightening.
So far that has meant stopping fuel supplies, cutting off logistic trucks – allowing only limited shipments of food to the camp. This month, when Iraqi forces occupied a building that had been housing Iranian women, there were clashes with the camp’s residents and several were beaten by Iraqi soldiers, until U.S. forces stepped in.
Residents of Ashraf say their family members who have travelled from Iran to see them at the camp for the past 23 years, are now being stopped from entering. Many have been held in the desert area beyond the camp by Iraqi authorities and forced to wait for weeks with no shelter, even though there are women and children among them.
The situation has been escalating since control of the camp was handed over from the U.S. military to Iraqi authorities in January this year. Although the U.S. still maintains a small monitoring presence, it is now Iraqi soldiers who surround the camp and guard its gates. And that has made it more like a prison than their home.
Now the residents of Ashraf live in fear. Their greatest enemy – the Iranian regime – has never been more powerful inside Iraq. The supreme leader Ali Khameni, when he visited Iraq in February, made it clear he expects Iraq to close the camp. Iran also wants a list of wanted PMOI members to be handed over for trial.
And since his public remarks, the residents of Ashraf say new and inhumane restrictions have been placed on them. Of particular concern to them, are the remarks made by Iraq’s National Security Minister, Mowaffak Rubaie, who has promised to close the camp by late March.
On a visit to Iran Jan. 23, Rubaie said Camp Ashraf would be "part of history within two months."
Then in a statement on March 16, he said:
"The government will not go back on its decision to close down the camp ... residents have the choice between returning to Iran or going to a third country".
But their status in Iran is clear: they would be regarded as terrorists.
Other comments by Iraq’s National Security Advisor are somewhat more revealing – and disturbing.
“These individuals have been brainwashed, and we must liberate them from this poison," Rubaie said. "When we carry out a process of detoxification, if this assumption is correct, this act will at first be painful. There is no alternative than to begin this painful act."
Not surprisingly, this has spread anxiety amongst the residents of Ashraf. It remains to be seen where else these families could go.
But when the world wanted to know about Iran’s nuclear program, the PMOI were not regarded as terrorists – they were welcomed.
Now, it seems they may have been abandoned to their fate.